Life-changing experience for American Latvian interns in ancestral land

The American Latvian Association (ALA) recently celebrated its 65th anniversary and is sending a new group of young interns to work in the Baltics. ALA’s recently re-elected president, Pēteris Blumbergs, agreed to discuss issues of US-Latvian relations and the threat of Russia by email with The Baltic Times.

What are ALA’s key goals currently? How have these changed over the years?
ALA operates a diverse portfolio of educational, cultural, and sports-related programmes intended to maintain an active and vibrant Latvian American community in the US. We also fund important charitable projects in Latvia, especially those focused on assisting at-risk children and families. Our Information Office tracks geopolitical issues such as Russian aggression in Ukraine and disinformation campaigns. We inform our elected officials in the US about developments in the Baltics and urge them to support their Eastern European NATO allies through programmes such as the European Defense Initiative which this year saw an over four-fold (proposed) funding increase from 800 million US dollars to 3.4 billion dollars.

Our goals in relation to education and culture have not substantially changed over the years and we continue to support Latvian American “Sunday schools” (21 schools nationwide) and cultural events such as concerts and plays. Of course over 65 years (ALA just celebrated its 65th anniversary), assimilation has taken its toll and led to smaller school enrollments and so on. At the same time, the “new immigrants” who have moved to the US since Latvia regained its independence have given many of our communities a jolt of energy and talent.

The biggest recent change for the Information Office is that Putin’s imperialistic ambitions have caused us to become very active again in tracking and responding to geopolitical developments after a relatively quiet time in the years immediately following Latvia’s accession to NATO in 2004.

As I understand it, your internship programme, which expanded last summer, used to only send Latvian Americans to the Occupation Museum. How did the programme begin?
ALA has awarded scholarships and support over the years to Latvian American students. This includes funding to attend the Garezers and Kursa summer high school programmes, college aid, and the subsidisation of ALA’s Sveika, Latvija programme, which sends 8th graders on a 2-week educational tour of Latvia (42 kids participated last summer including one of my sons). It made sense to expand our general scholarship programme to internships to enable older kids to gain some practical work experience. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvija was a natural partner in the project since we have long supported the museum’s mission and provided financial support. And given these ties, we knew the interns would have a rewarding experience.

What were the programme’s early successes and lessons?
Interns to the Occupation Museum always returned happy from their summer abroad. These young people were motivated and would seek out tasks and projects while at the museum. And their enthusiasm generated interest in donors. Some would donate specifically to support the internships.

How and when was the decision made to expand the programme to other museums and organisations?
In the summer of 2014, ALA’s Cultural Office Director Liga Ejupe had invited the Latvian Minister of Culture Dace Melbarde to visit Garezers, the Latvian American summer high school located in Three Rivers, Michigan. Minister Melbarde was impressed by the intensity of the cultural patriotism of the students, but understood that upon graduating the summer high school there were no options for continuing the students’ development of the Latvian language. During her three days at Garezers, the minister, Liga, and Anita Batarags (the then-ALA president) spent a good deal of time discussing the question “What next?” What could these talented Latvian Americans do after graduating Garezers? And that is when the idea formed to expand the existing Occupation Museum internship programme to a broader range of cultural institutions. And Liga took on the role as liaison between the Latvian Ministry of Culture, ALA, the institutions, and the interns.

How were the new museums and organisations chosen? Which have been the most popular among applicants?
The Ministry of Culture invited all of its institution partners to apply. From that list ALA coordinates the positions and the responsibilities with the assigned mentor in each institution. Most popular? According to Liga, “All of them! Last year we had kids express interest in all of the different options.” But the National Library and the Ethnographic Museum lead the pack as each had four interns, so they were the busiest.

How did the expanded internship programme fare last year?
From my vantage point, it seemed to be well-regarded. As Liga put it to me, “Well regarded is putting it mildly — it was fabulous!” ALA could not have predicted such positive results in the first year. All sixteen interns told us they regarded their experience as life changing. One intern decided to continue her studies at the Latvian Academy of Art. Two interns found full-time employment through the programme and now live in Latvia.

I hear that this year’s interns will soon be headed to Latvia. How many are there?
This year 18 students will be participating in the programme. Fourteen from the US, one from Canada, and three from Australia. One intern has already started working at the Academy of Culture. The majority will start work by the middle of June. The intern feedback was so positive last year, that the Latvian Association of Australia and New Zealand (LAAJ) wanted to include their interested students, even though the kids will miss part of their winter school semester.

Does ALA have any plans to further expand or change the programme in the near future?
We are continuing to look at ways to evolve, especially with an eye toward finding opportunities that particularly interest or professionally benefit our Latvian American students. This year we have expanded the options beyond the original cultural institutions and have included three leading technology firms for those applicants with business or scientific backgrounds. We are looking to create partnerships with think tanks or NGOs that might take on students with political science, international relations, or journalism backgrounds.

To change the subject, ALA recently hosted its 65th Congress in Los Angeles. What were some of the highlights and takeaway messages?
Our annual meetings have evolved over the years. In the early days, there were internal political battles and feisty debates over the direction of the organisation. These days things are calmer, but I think that more serious work gets done. We have really focused on getting leading Latvian thinkers to serve as guest speakers, and their presentations and findings help propel our organisation’s agenda for the upcoming year. In Los Angeles, for instance, we heard from Yale researcher Inta Mierina who has just completed the most significant study ever conducted of the post-1991 Latvian diaspora. The numbers are troubling and it made us realise the importance of a Latvian re-emigration plan. Similarly, we gained valuable insights into the Russian state-sponsored disinformation campaign when we screened the Re:Baltica film, “Masterplan,” and heard from the filmmakers. ALA will be active on these two issues (demography and disinformation) in the upcoming year.

What was the general sentiment regarding “Masterplan”?
The general sentiment is that film is really well done and the filmmakers are talented and courageous. So long as Latvia has a steady supply of people like Re:Baltica’s Sanita Jemberga and Inga Springe, I have a lot of optimism for the country’s future. Some had warned that the film’s subject matter (Russia’s disinformation war in Latvia) was depressing and alarming, but I think most Latvian Americans share such a dim view of Putin that nothing said about his schemes and machinations surprises us. It was interesting to understand, however, that Putin’s “masterplan” is general destabilisation and that Putin is an opportunist with no particular blueprint. So, in response, we have to limit his opportunities and build stability. ALA can help in a variety of ways. We will encourage expressions of support for Latvia through visits by congressional delegations and high-level governmental officials, we will continue to expose Putin’s agenda by hosting seminars and publishing works, and we will combat disinformation by promoting institutions such as Radio Free Europe and the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence.

What is ALA currently doing in response to Russia’s continued presence in Ukraine?
ALA has adopted and published numerous resolutions condemning the activities in Ukraine. We have organised seminars (including two in the past year, in New York and Chicago) and published articles that cast light on the situation. We have periodic meetings with the State Department where we voice our concerns and propose solutions (including, for instance, enhanced funding for the European Defense Initiative which we view as a major achievement). Our affiliate organisation, the Joint Baltic American National Committee, which is a registered lobbyist, is very active in the halls of Congress. This upcoming summer, Congress will be considering whether to renew sanctions connected to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and JBANC has been actively advocating on the issue.

To end on a lighter note, what role is ALA playing in preparing for Latvia’s 100th anniversary in 2018?
As our gift to Latvia, we will concentrate on raising public awareness of Latvia and Latvians in America. We will emphasise the positive history of Latvian American relations as well as future partnerships. ALA through its Cultural Office has conceived a plan that will mirror the celebration in Latvia. From Nov. 18, 2017 through Nov. 18, 2018 we invite everyone, every organisation, every group large or small to participate. Our goal is to celebrate 100 events for the Centennial. The ALA Cultural Office will serve as an information conduit and idea center. The Centennial year celebration is an ideal opportunity for everyone — whether you speak Latvian or not — to work together.
This interview was originally published in The Baltic Times on 19th May, 2016.

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